Monday, January 15, 2018

Book Review - Perfect

Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series is one of the most iconic moments in the storied history of our national pastime. It is a feat that had never before been done and has not been done since. In Lew Paper’s wonderful book Perfect, we are transported back to that fateful October day in Yankee Stadium and dive deeply into the people and personalities at play during a game that would become immortal.

While reading Perfect, I kept thinking about the TV show LOST because so much of the book unfolds in flashback - to small towns in Oklahoma, hard scrabble homes in the midwest, and cramped apartments in big cities. These were men who came of age as children of the Depression, and who, through sheer will and determination, made it through that awful time to achieve great success. They were also soldiers, war heroes, husbands, fathers, and sons who Paper shows us in three dimensions. Jackie Robinson is of course a singular figure, and Paper tidily goes through his ascension to the major leagues as the first African-American player but I found the juxtaposition between Robinson and his teammate Roy Campanella even more compelling - the former was a social justice warrior who exhibited superhuman restraint against racists who taunted him, while the latter was more equanimous, having played in the Negro Leagues for many years and with a more convivial nature that allowed him to shrug off the slurs and epithets. 

And this context is important, be it to understand the uniqueness of Pee Wee Reese, a child of the South embracing Robinson when he came up to the majors, or the complicated experience of Mickey Mantle, a young man of prodigious talent who was seduced by fast living in New York. There are also lesser known players and stories, like Enos Slaughter, a lifelong Cardinal traded to the Yankees late in his career grousing decades later over the portrayal of an incident when he spiked Robinson that carried the whiff of racism and Dale Mitchell, who made the final out in the game and although he was a career .312 hitter who had played on a World Series champion in 1948, was forever defined by the called strike three (that most players acknowledged was a ball) that ended the game. 

And speaking of the game, it at times feels secondary to the narrative and that may be because the Yankees scratched out just five hits and two runs, one of which was a Mantle home run. Unlike the modern game, with its endless substitutions, shifts, pitching changes, and slow pace, Game Five took just over two hours, and both Larsen and his opposite number, Sal Maglie, pitched the entire game, and the only pinch hitter was Mitchell, who came to bat with two outs in the top of the ninth. To be sure, there were a couple of close calls, Robinson smacked a grounder into the hole between short and third in the top of the second that clipped the glove of Yankees third baseman Andy Carey before shortstop Gil McDougald corralled the ball and made a throw that beat Robinson by a half step, Duke Snider crushed a ball in the top of the fourth that would have been a home run had it not leaked foul by six inches and Gil Hodges smashed a ball to left center in the top of the fifth that Mantle caught just before it hit the ground, later describing the catch as the best of his career. 

The game is notable for other reasons too, like the fact that no less than seven future Hall of Famers played in the game (for the Yankees - Mantle, Berra, and Slaughter, for the Dodgers - Reese, Robinson, Snider, and Campanella, along with both team’s managers), but what Paper does so well is tease out connections to what still stands as a singular athletic achievement. There is the near-miss World Series no-hitter from 1947 - another Yankees vs. Dodgers match up - when journeyman Bill Bevens no-hit the Dodgers for 8 and 2/3 innings (he did allow a whopping ten walks) before his no-no was broken up by Cookie Lavagetto (the Dodgers ultimately won the game) and the presence of Sandy Amoros, whose catch in the sixth inning of Game Seven of the 1955 World Series helped secure Da Bums’ one and only world championship while they played in Brooklyn.

The 1956 World Series would also serve as a coda to both the players and the teams. Players like Berra, Reese, Robinson, and Campanella (who was paralyzed in a car accident a little over a year later) were reaching the end of their careers. New York’s place as the center of the baseball universe was coming to a close too. After battling each other seven times in the World Series between 1941 and 1956, the two teams would not again square off in the fall classic until 1977. The Dodgers were denied a third straight National League pennant in 1957 and moved to Los Angeles for the 1958 season. They were joined on the West Coast by the New York Giants, who went from the Bronx to San Francisco during that same off season. The Yankees would continue to dominate through the mid 1960s, winning the World Series in 1958, 1961, and 1962 and the AL pennant in 1960, 1963, and 1964, but even though New York added a second team in 1962 (the Mets), never again would three teams share one city or compete so aggressively for fans and titles. In that way, Larsen’s gem is a fitting exclamation point to this era of baseball and Paper’s book Perfect captures the moment beautifully.

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Saturday, December 30, 2017

TV Review - House of Cards Season Five

Now that Kevin Spacey has been fired from House of Cards, reviewing the show's fifth season is much different. While the show will return for eight episodes before calling it a day, it has been tarnished by association and may limp to a finish without much more than a novelty’s level worth of curiosity of how it handles Spacey’s firing in the context of the overall storyline. 

Of course, Spacey’s downfall viz a viz the show is ironic. The fifth season saw his character, Frank Underwood, pushed to the side in favor of his wife Claire, who is now President after his resignation (don't ask). Indeed, the show's hiatus is a good opportunity for the show runners to think about where they want to go and what they want out of the final season because the fifth season was so bananas crazy (not in a good way) that a pause will be good regardless.

When House of Cards started, it balanced much of what makes DC intrigue interesting - political sabotage, deals cut behind closed doors, and just enough lurid titillation to pique without being prurient. But as the show has progressed, the machinations have become less believable and the suspension of disbelief required, far greater. This was never more true than in Season 5, which unfolded for the first half against a ridiculously convoluted electoral theft story that made Bush v. Gore look simple and then spent the second half fast forwarding past what could have been a season-long arc of Frank's undoing (at his own hand as it turns out, in a finale-aside that would have been missed if you blinked) and elevation of Claire surrounded by scheming aides eager to take advantage of her naivete and inexperience.

Sometimes, shows that start out strong lose their thread (looking at you, Homeland) and even before Spacey’s outing as a sexual predator, it was clear House of Cards had morphed from drama to parody. Spacey’s scene-chewing monologues became flabby, less Machiavelli and more dorm-room 101 philosophy, and while the body count piled up, it required a belief both in the fecklessness of law enforcement and every tinfoil-hat conspiracy about dark forces running the country to not be laughable. 

Looking back, it is clear that the early decisions to navigate Frank into the Oval Office so quickly ended up being too much to fast. The show jettisoned any pretense of being a “DC drama” that might have been based on legislative horse-trading or lower-level skirmishes in favor of more and more outlandish scheming and mendacity that ultimately involved state-sanctioned murder, false arrest and imprisonment, and manufactured terrorist attacks to spook the populace. On the other hand, we are asked to believe the Vice President of the United States could keep secret a live-in lover (who she kills in the penultimate episode) while also, hello, BEING MARRIED TO THE PRESIDENT. It is absurd, even for televised drama. 

There may be a small opportunity for redemption in Spacey’s exit. With Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood now unshackled from the yoke of her marriage to Frank, eight episodes is more than enough time to tell both a taut political story and consider the reckoning that all those who have done bad things deserve. 

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Saturday, December 23, 2017

2017 Year in Books

I'm too lazy to blurb all the books I read this year, so here's the list. My goal was to review every book I read, but as you'll see, I didn't quite make it. Of the books I did review, a couple I really liked are "Word by Word" (#18), "Nomadland" (#31) and "Fear City" (#33). A couple I liked but didn't review are "The Stranger in the Woods" (#14) and "The Lonely City" (#28), the latter was probably one of my two or three favorites of the year. I thought Grann's "Killers of the Flower Moon" (#17) which landed on a few best-of lists was a little disappointing and Perrotta's Mrs. Fletcher (#29) was WAY overrated. There is also a bit of fluff like "Make Trouble" (#27), which you can read in about 20 minutes and "The Asshole Survival Guide" (#34). The rest are a mixed bag of good ("A First Class Catastrophe" (#35)), bad ("The Road to Little Dribbling" (#5)) and ugly (in that early 70s facial hair is not good, but reading about the Swingin' A's was excellent "Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic" (#11)). 

I hope you got to read some good books this year too! 

6. The African Svelte, Daniel Menaker
9. If Our Bodies Could Talk, Dr. James Hamblin
10. Arthur & Sherlock: Conan Doyle & the Creation of Holmes, Michael Mims
11. Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic, Jason Turbow
13. The One Cent Magenta: Inside the Quest to Own the Most Valuable Stamp in the World, James Barron
14. The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, Michael Finkel
15. The Course of Love, Alain de Botton
16. The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge & Why It Matters, Tom Nichols
17. Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann
20. The Descent of Man, Grayson Perry
22. Last Call, Daniel Okrent
23. Grocery, Michael Ruhlman
25. Paths to Happiness, Edward Hoffman
26. Caeser’s Last Breath, Sam Kean
27. Make Trouble, John Waters
28. The Lonely City, Olivia Laing
30. The Thousand Dollar Dinner, Becky Diamond
34. Get Capone, Jonathan Eig
35. The Asshole Survival Guide, Robert Sutton
36. A First Class Catastrophe, Diana Henriques

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Trump’s First Year Was A Huge Success

“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” - Les   February 29, 2016

During an election year that seemed to move at the speed of light, the above quote from CBS chairman Les Moonves was barely a one day story. The context of Moonves’s quote related to the record ad revenue his company and other media outlets were collecting and of course, the needle moved even more when Donald Trump was on their air. His comments were echoed by CNN President Jeff Zucker, who called 2016 “the best year ever” for cable news, and it was not because they were doing deep dives on the fine points of tax policy. Showtime aired a series about the campaign dubbed The Circus and an after-action report conducted by the Columbia Journalism Review found that in a six day period near the end of the campaign, the New York Times filed as many stories about Hillary’s email as they did in the final sixty-nine days about her policy positions. 

With Trump’s victory last November, one would have hoped the media writ large would course correct. While The Washington Post boldly placed “Democracy Dies in Darkness” on its homepage and The New York Times brags about skyrocketing revenue from new subscribers drawn in by its purportedly aggressive coverage of Trump, 11 months into Trump’s first term in office, he has succeeded in waving many shiny objects in front of reporters’ faces even as the federal government, and its role in our daily life, has been radically altered.

For all the spinning on cable news that Trump has been a failure, I would argue that a week from now, when, in all likelihood, Trump has a splashy signing ceremony for the Republicans’ massive tax cut for corporations and the wealthy, he will have achieved as much in his first year in office as Barack Obama, and, over the long run, potentially much more. Here’s why:

Trump Is Reshaping The Federal Judiciary For The Next 20 Years: The top line here is the seating of Neil Gorsuch, a 50-year-old conservative jurist who may serve until the 2040s, on the U.S. Supreme Court, but it goes beyond that - Trump is one retirement (Anthony Kennedy) away from locking in that majority with a replacement who, like Gorsuch, may serve for 25-30 years. A worst case scenario where either Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Stephen Breyer (or both) retire before 2020, would be cataclysmic. 

But Trump’s influence extends well beyond the Supreme Court. After all, while it does render decisions of great consequence, it also issues fewer than 100 opinions a year. The real action is in the twelve circuit courts of appeal, and there, Mitch McConnell has used the Senate as a turnstile, approving more of Trump’s nominees (twelve) in his first year in office than any President in history. 

Republicans Are Dismantling Wide Swaths of the Regulatory State: Do you care about the environment? Sexual assault investigations on college campuses? Consumer protection against heavy-handed (or illegal) actions of major financial institutions? Having unfettered access to all corners of the Internet? I have bad news for you. All of those things are under assault, a two-pronged assault in fact, that has rarely been seen in Washington. 

The first prong was predictable - Trump installed many regulated-industry friendly leaders as Cabinet Secretaries and administrative agency heads to either reverse or stay implementation of Obama-era regulations in many of the areas (and others) mentioned above. The other, less so. Republicans in Congress have utilized something called the Congressional Review Act, which grants Congress power to overturn, by simple majority vote, any regulation passed in the last 6 months of a prior administration. In total, Congress overturned 12 Obama-era regulations, including an FCC rule on Internet privacy protections, an SEC regulation that required energy companies to disclose payments to foreign governments, and a Department of Interior stream-protection rule, which prevented coal companies from dumping waste into stream valleys. 

The Tax Cut Bill: The idea that we would borrow at least $1.5 trillion and hand that money to corporations and the wealthy at a time when income inequality is already at a level unseen since the 1920s is bizarre enough without considering several other things. 

First, the tax cut bill is more expensive than advertised because the personal income tax cuts in the bill have a sunset provision in 2025. The Bush tax cuts had a similar sunset provision and were (mostly) made permanent when they lapsed, adding trillions in long-term debt. So too here. Some future Congress and President (not Trump) will be put in the position of trying to raise taxes or borrow even more to make the tax cuts “permanent.” WONDER WHICH ONE THEY WILL CHOOSE?! Second, the tax cut bill will increase the deficit. We have seen this movie before - first under Reagan and then under Bush 43 - tax cuts do not pay for themselves and the growth of government will result in a deficit that is already nearing $700 billion a year, swelling even more. This crowds out our ability to invest in things like research and development, infrastructure, and other social goods. Ultimately, interest rates will also increase, making it harder (and more expensive) to buy a home, a car, or other goods and services. Finally, the tax cut bill includes a repeal of the individual mandate under Obamacare. This will result in fewer healthy Americans purchasing insurance, resulting in insurance companies raising premiums on the rest of us. The repeal, along with other, subtle tactics that have undermined the ACA (smaller enrollment window, no marketing to get people to enroll, etc.) is further eroding this salutary public good. 

What makes these changes so pernicious, is that they largely happen in the background, not all at once. Three or four years from now, politicians will fuzzy up the next economic crash or trillion-dollar budget deficit (remember, Republicans argued that Bill Clinton was somehow to blame for the 2008 market crash because he signed legislation that overturned the Glass-Steagall Act (which had largely been rendered moot anyway) and not the Bush Administration’s reckless tax and monetary policy and indifference to regulation.) Climate change is something that is felt over time, Miami is not going underwater tomorrow, and people will debate whether job growth or loss was due to policies enacted (or reversed) without a clear cut answer. 

Even more consequential is how difficult it will be to undo the damage. As noted, the Supreme Court is one retirement away from having a conservative majority locked in for years to come. Regulations take a long time to promulgate and become effective (and that is before legal challenges that can slow things down even longer). Corporations, already awash in trillions of dollars, now have a green light to further consolidate, which affects everything from what we watch on TV, read in the newspaper, and view on the Internet, while giving them even more money to lobby for laws and regulations that benefit them. Had you told a Republican politician that in Trump’s first year in office, all of the above would be accomplished, I suspect they would be quite happy.

Of course, what also helps is the media’s disinterest in focusing on these issues. It is far easier (and profitable) for them to gorge on controversy instead of considering whether allowing coal companies to dump run off into freshwater is good public policy or not. Media conglomerates are also not neutral referees. They must be responsive to shareholders, not the public interest, and the more money that is shoveled their way, the more “the circus” plays on in Washington, adding to their advertising revenue and ratings, the less their incentive to be fair-minded arbiters of the public good. And for those small corners of cable news or the print/web media that are reporting on these ills, left-wing outrage is just as profitable as the right-wing version even though little can be done to change things. 

Even if Trump resigned tomorrow or was impeached, even if Democrats take back one (or both) houses of Congress in 2018, the effect of the last 11 months will be felt for decades. It may not be good for America (or democracy), but hey, at least Les Moonves is happy. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

Monday, December 11, 2017

Why 18 Days May Prove Trump Obstructed Justice

The latest in the Mueller investigation is that the Special Counsel is zeroing in on the 18 days between when then-Acting Attorney General Sally Yates warned White House Counsel Don McGahn that Michael Flynn had been compromised and Flynn’s resignation as National Security Adviser. 

Slowly but surely, the pieces are starting to fall into place as to what transpired not just in those 18 days, but more importantly, how they relate to what happened a month before, in late December when, we now know, Flynn had several conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak about dropping sanctions that President Obama had imposed after the election. 

It appears things went down something like this: Flynn spoke with Kislyak around Christmas about the Obama-imposed sanctions and reported back on those conversations in real time to Trump’s team at Mar-A-Lago. Unbeknownst to Flynn, law enforcement was also listening in on his conversations with Kislyak. 

Flynn was interviewed by the FBI on January 24, 2017 and lied about his interactions with Kislyak. Two days later, Yates warned McGahn that Flynn had been compromised by the Russians. The next day, Trump invited Comey to a one-on-one dinner where Trump asked for Comey’s “loyalty.” 

About two weeks later, after the Washington Post reported on Flynn’s contacts with Kislyak, Flynn quit under fire, for (allegedly) lying to Mike Pence about his interactions with the Russians. The next day, Trump again had a one-on-one meeting with Comey (after kicking his other advisors out of the room) and asked Comey to drop the Flynn investigation now that he had resigned. Comey refused and was fired about three months later.

The most plausible explanation for all this is basically as follows: the Trump team, and probably Trump himself, knew about Flynn’s contacts with Kislyak and Flynn reported back in real time about what they talked about. Sometime after the new year, Flynn found out the FBI wanted to talk to him. Flynn told someone (or someones) about the interview and the decision was made that Flynn would lie to the FBI about his interactions with the Russians, assuming the lie would not be discovered. 

Two days after the interview, Yates warned McGahn, who may (or may not) have known about the Christmas week conversations. McGahn warned Trump, who DID know what Flynn was up to and decided to lean on Comey, who demurred. The story leaked to the press a few weeks later, Flynn quit, and Trump tried to get Comey to drop the investigation because he knew it would incriminate him or people close to him. 

And that is why Mueller is so focused on those 18 days between Yates’s White House briefing and Flynn’s resignation, because the most plausible explanation for all that went on is that Trump or people very close to him were either aware or told Flynn to lie about his discussions with Kislyak. In other words, Trump or people in his inner circle may have tried to obstruct the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s role in our election and/or to suborn perjury - in short, to break the law. But now, Flynn is a cooperating witness and the true answer will (hopefully) be told. 

Reporters sometimes get tripped up because they assume a level of sophistication or subterfuge that just does not exist in the Trump world. These are not smart conspirators, just arrogant ones who thought they would get away with it. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Book Review - Fear City

To walk the streets of Manhattan these days, neck craning at the luxury skyscrapers or dodging the tourists on the High Line, it is hard to imagine a city so conspicuous with wealth was once, not long ago, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, with garbage being burned in the streets, subway cars blanketed in graffiti, and the police warning visitors not to be out after dark. In Kim Phillips-Fein’s outstanding history of New York’s 1970s fiscal crisis, Fear City, you can almost feel the polyester chafing at your thighs and the stale aroma of stubbed out cigarettes in overflowing ashtrays as the city elders scramble to avoid catastrophe. 

In Phillips-Fein’s deft hands, a story about municipal bond sales, city budgets, and financial bail outs is a page-turning political thriller with few heroes but ample room for soul searching about how government responds to the needs of its people. The set-up is fairly simple - the city of New York floated a budget deficit for many years by selling bonds they used to cover up the shortfall. As the 1970s began and the economy slowed, the amount the city needed to borrow became greater, the interest they paid to lenders increased, and at a point, the party came to a screeching halt when banks became concerned the city would be unable to pay them back. 

And in this story, we learn that the true power is not in Gracie Mansion, but on Wall Street, where the screws are turned on the overmatched mayor, Abe Beame, to cut public services and jobs, and raise taxes in order to meet the city’s financial obligations. For public policy nerds, there is much to commend, the on-the-fly decisions to create entire new agencies to manage city finances and issue bonds, and the back-and-forth with the Ford Administration as city and state leaders go hat-in-hand seeking a bail out, culminating in the iconic New York Daily News FORD TO CITY - DROP DEAD headline. 

Phillips-Fein ably moves between the 30,000 foot view down to the tree tops where the decisions being hashed out were actually felt. Whether it was the rank smell of uncollected trash piling up in the summer sun or the working class neighborhoods that fought back against the shuttering of fire houses and satellite college campuses, the human toll is never far from the surface. Indeed, fully the final third of Fear City focuses on the aftermath of all the cuts and layoffs and the inexorable shift of New York from a city that venerated its middle class to one that made a Hobson’s choice of jumping into bed with its financial overlords. 

Fear City is non-fiction suspense at its best, but it is impossible to read this deeply researched account of New York’s flirtation with bankruptcy and not compare it to how financial crisis was handled when the shoe was on the other foot. For me, looming in the background of Wall Street’s heavy-handed treatment of city government in the 1970s is the disparate treatment of Wall Street by the federal government in the wake of the stock market crash of 2008. There, over the course of essentially one weekend, the federal government approved up to $700 billion in loans to major banks to shore up the economy. By contrast, New York City was left to twist in the wind for almost two years and was squeezed over and over - to cut police, firefighters and teachers, to charge tuition at the historically no-cost City College of New York, to raise subway tolls, and close public hospitals in order to get the cash they desperately needed. Elected officials were made to humble themselves and shamed for wanting to help the less fortunate and the less fortunate and middle class ultimately took it on the chin as opportunities for things like a college degree became more costly (or out of reach) and services they depended on were suddenly in short supply.  

You need not be a PhD in sociology or macroeconomics to understand the message sent when financial crisis hits. If you are deemed “too big to fail,” the bail out will be swift and complete. If you are a mere citizen struggling to make ends meet, punishment must be inflicted to teach you a lesson. 

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Sunday, December 3, 2017

Emancipation Day VII

Today used to matter. Today is the day my ex-wife moved out of our home, effectively ending our marriage. I used to think about this day a lot, I used to use it as a time for reflection and assessment of where I had been, where I was, and where I wanted to go. But after seven years, I almost forgot today was the day. I don’t give my ex-wife a moment’s thought anymore. I don’t miss her, I don’t wish she was here, or flagellate over the errors I made. It’s all baked into the cake at this point. 

What I didn’t realize then, and appreciate far more now that I have had 7 years of distance, is how profoundly she damaged me. How much of what I still struggle with, insecurity, low self- esteem, a feeling of unworthiness (of love, of professional accomplishment, of material comfort) redounds back to how she treated me. It was never good enough, *I* was never good enough - I did not earn enough money, or do enough to make her life easier, her drinking problem was not her fault it was *mine* because I was not sufficiently supportive (all lies). I did not know the term “gaslight” back then, I did not know how people who are emotionally abusive behave and how they flip the script on you, but once I did, it all made sense

I also did not appreciate how small my window would end up being for a fresh start. At 40 (when she moved out) it might have been realistic to think I could have a second life, a second wife, or at least a second serious relationship that was committed, mutually supportive, and healthy, but at 47, I feel like that window has closed. Having been on my own for so long now with no help, few friends and no family to provide the support most people take for granted, I have become far less patient with people who come into my life. On the one hand, I’d love to have that support, particularly since the last two years have been particularly tricky with health issues, job uncertainty, and more than one close (medical) call with my cats, but on the other, because I have overcome these challenges on my own, I have no time for people who show themselves unable (or unwilling) to help. I feel like I have a lot to offer but too often that generosity - of support, caring, and affection are taken advantage of - I sometimes wonder whether I have something stamped on my forehead saying “use me.” 

So now, I am focused solely on myself, Pumpkin, and Ghost. If I could will all my money to my two cats I would, but instead, I will leave it all to charity. I will work until I retire and then move to Arizona, spending my golden years taking photos of mesas, canyons, and sunsets, driving around in a convertible, reading books, and having as little to do with anyone as possible. Some people don’t get the happy ending they want, I have come to realize that includes me. 

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Friday, November 24, 2017

Did Gary Johnson & Jill Stein Cost Hillary The Presidency?

There is a seemingly endless supply of think pieces and long reads about why Donald Trump is now our President. Most focus on the belief that Trump tapped into a vein of anger among white working class voters in the midwest and rust belt over … pick your poison … electing the first black president, veiled racism, economic insecurity, the opioid crisis and on and on. 

I am not a smart reporter or a political scientist, I cannot disaggregate voter turnout models or speak to the impact voter ID laws had on turn out, if Comey’s letter torpedoed Hillary (though I suspect it helped) or what impact Wikileaks or Facebook had when cable news was handing Trump in-kind contributions in the billions by simply airing his every move, but one thing that you never hear about is the impact third-party voting had on the 2016 election. 

Gary Johnson and Jill Stein. To me, this is the most underreported story of 2016. Both Stein and Johnson were candidates in 2012 AND 2016, which makes their vote totals particularly interesting to look at. In 2012, Johnson got .99% of the national vote and Stein got .36%, for a combined total of 1.35%. In 2016, Johnson got 3.28% of the vote and Stein got 1.07%. Johnson tripled his vote total and Stein nearly tripled hers. Combined, they received more than 4% of the vote. 

One would assume Johnson’s vote spiked from Republicans who refused to vote for Trump but could not bring themselves to vote for Hillary and Stein’s vote spiked for the opposite reason. I have not seen any studies done on who Johnson and Stein voters considered as a second option, but I have to wonder whether the media’s fixation on Hillary as untrustworthy caused voters who could not stomach Trump to go for Johnson (or Evan McMullen, who got about .4% of the vote) instead. The large third-party vote had enormous consequences in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, each of which Trump won by less than 1%. In all three states, Trump’s margin of victory was far less than the Johnson and Stein vote combined. In fact, it was less than the Stein vote alone, a vague redux of New Hampshire and Florida in 2000, where Bush’s margin was less than Nader’s vote total.

Take a look at this chart:

Iowa, Florida, and Ohio. Although much attention is rightly focused on Hillary’s loss of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, all of which had gone for the Democrats in every election since 1992, if I was a Democrat running in 2020, I would be even more concerned with Iowa, Florida, and Ohio. Trump carried Florida by 1.3 percent (the Johnson/Stein vote accounted for about 3 percent), Ohio by 8 percent, and Iowa by 10 percent. In Florida, while Clinton grew Obama’s vote total by about 260,000, Trump added more than 450,000 votes from what Romney got in 2012. Iowa is even more telling. Clinton underperformed Obama by almost 170,000 votes while Trump added just 70,000 votes from Romney. But, whereas third party candidates only got about 30,000 votes in 2012, they spiked to nearly 80,000 in 2016. Finally, in Ohio, Obama outperformed Hillary by more than 400,000 votes while Trump only added about 180,000 votes to Romney’s total. Again, the third party vote was huge compared to 2012. In 2016, Johnson and Stein got a combined 4 percent of the vote, but in 2012, they only got 1.2 percent. 

Of course, had Hillary won Florida and any one of Michigan, Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, she would be President today (this discounts the “faithless electors” who refused to vote for their state’s winner in the actual 2016 election, resulting in an official tally of 304-227, instead of 306-232). 

Trump’s Win Was Underwhelming. Not only did Trump lose the popular vote by nearly 3 million, but his percentage of the overall vote was barely 46 percent, the lowest total for a Presidential victor since 1992 when Bill Clinton won 43 percent of the vote with a well-funded third-party candidate (Ross Perot) in the race. In fact, Hillary basically matched Obama’s vote total from 2012 (she came up about 65,000 votes short of Obama) but the disbursement of those votes was different. She over performed Obama in states that may be trending purple like Arizona (+140,000) and Georgia (+105,000) and deep blue states like California (+1,000,000) but in addition to the states mentioned above, received fewer votes than Obama did in reliable Democratic strongholds like Minnesota (-180,000) and Connecticut (-7,000). In Minnesota, the third-party vote went from 1.64% to 5.1% and in Connecticut from .87% to 4.35% while Trump’s vote was basically flat from 2012. 

2020. Trump threaded a very small needle to scratch out an electoral victory that was the result of many things, one of which - the third-party vote - is rarely spoken about among the political chattering class but should be discussed more because I cannot believe anything Trump has done as President would get “never Trump” Republicans (or Independents) who did not vote for him (or Hillary) to change their minds while Stein voters who may have felt “safe” lodging a protest vote assuming Hillary was going to win have (hopefully?) learned their lesson. 

If you believe that the massive spike in third-party voting was attributable to voters thinking both candidates were equally flawed (a narrative driven in large part by a media elite who refuse to take any responsibility for their false equivalence), there is a major opportunity for a Democrat who does not engender the antipathy of the media and some voters to shift many of those third-party votes that would swamp Trump by an even greater raw vote total margin but with the added benefit of a convincing electoral college victory as well.  

While protest voters may have believed the polls and pundits that Hillary had things in the bag and therefore felt freer to cast a third party vote, the same will not be true in 2020. Indeed, there is good historical precedent - Ralph Nader’s share of the vote dropped from 2.74% in 2000 to .38% in 2004. While that did not result in a Kerry victory, it did not contribute to his defeat. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Book Review - Vanishing New York

Back in the late 80s, I was a college student and part-time touring Deadhead. At the end of an opening set in Landover, Maryland that apparently did not sit well with a woman sitting a few rows behind me, she screamed CASEY JONES!!!!! PLAY SOMETHING FOR THE OLD DEADHEADS!!!! My friends and I just rolled our eyes, old people, am I right? (and little did she know, but a few years later, her wish would be granted). 

I harkened back to that night at the old Capital Centre while wading through Jeremiah Moss’s polemic-cum-nostalgia-laden tome Vanishing New York. For years, Moss has maintained a blog of the same name, chronicling the demise of “old” New York and its increasing gentrification and homogenization. Moss is that aging hippie screaming for a performance of an old hit record,  the grimy old days of New York City epitomized on HBO’s The Deuce and iconic movies of the late 70s and early 80s like The Warriors and Escape From New York.

Moss is no neutral observer and he is unabashed in his criticism of what he sees as the suburbanization of a city he clearly loves and a way of life he has seen leach out with the opening of every new Starbucks (a jaw dropping 307 in Manhattan alone) and the shuttering of everything from mom-and-pop auto body shops to kosher delicatessens redolent with the aroma of sour pickles. 

Moss’s argument is well-researched (he cites everything from serious works on urban development to modern-day bloggers and the index runs nearly twenty pages) and his knowledge of the people and businesses he profiles borders on the encyclopedic. Lengthy discourses on the history of the Chelsea Hotel, the San Gennaro parade in Little Italy and the Bowery, among many others, put the reader in the beating heart of a city that is messy, loud, opinionated, and unwieldy but that, in Moss’s view, has largely been neutered of its attitude, replaced instead with an influx of wealthy foreigners, suburbanites, and others who have sanitized its streets and replaced people urinating on the streets in front of CBGB with a cascade of chain stores that would not look out of place in any random suburban shopping mall. 

At 400-plus pages, Vanishing New York is not bloated so much as exhausting. It is almost as if Moss feels the need to settle every score and pay his respects to every shuttered store front lost to gentrification. It may be cathartic, but it is not always compelling. There may be a twinge in Moss’s heart for the HoJo’s in Times Square, but is New York a lesser place because it no longer exists? It may not be great that 7-11 opened in the East Village, but is it any more right that vandals threw bricks through the store front windows or is that just a sign of New York’s don’t-give-a-fuck attitude? 

In venerating the good old days, Moss yadda yadda’s past the spiraling murder rate, hollowed out neighborhoods and mismanagement that led to New York’s near-bankruptcy in favor of a halcyon view of a renegade city where all of your artistic and carnal desires could be met, anonymously, and rarely with consequence (his passing references to, for example, the spiraling AIDS crisis of the early 80s does a disservice to that period of time. For a far fuller, and fairer accounting, I recommend Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City). And do not get me wrong - I am largely on his side when it comes to retaining neighborhood integrity, affordable housing, and all the rest, but to elide the fact that the city was teetering on the brink of complete collapse because you are upset that Starbucks has invaded every nook and cranny of Manhattan is unfair. 

Indeed, Moss seems uninterested in acknowledging any of the value that tourism brings to New York or the flush city coffers that have afforded safer streets (if not a better functioning subway system). It is almost as if Moss wishes to have all the benefits of the hip, bohemian and artistic vibe that pervaded many parts of lower Manhattan but is blind to the cost of allowing that to happen. And what of the good that has come from redeveloping abandoned warehouses, buildings, and neighborhoods? Why is that a societal failing? Shouldn’t we be applauding things like the clean up of the area along the Gowanus Canal or the Chelsea piers that were once heroin shooting galleries and have been improved and made safe and appealing? 

Moss is not above setting up a straw man or two either - his chapter-long harangue against tourists drifts into the ad hominem and the idea that native New Yorkers ALWAYS follow the lock step rule of walking TO THE RIGHT and never EVER look at their phones while on the street seems, well, unrealistic. He can also be a bit overly dramatic, as when he wanders into a Target in East Harlem, describing the air as “synthetic, reeking of greasy, freezer-burned cookie dough” that left him “disoriented and dizzy.” It is only when he escapes back to the “real” part of East Harlem on 116th Street that he regains his equilibrium. 

Moss also ignores that fact that the people themselves chose the leaders he reviles. Giuliani was elected to two terms and Bloomberg three. Neither of these men could have implemented many of the changes Moss bemoans without the support not just of voters but Democratic council members who represent the very neighborhoods that Moss mourns. It is a completely fair criticism to say that Bloomberg gilded the lily to get that third term, but at the end of the day, people still chose to put him back in office. So too Giuliani. For Republicans to win in a city where they are outnumbered by a roughly 5:1 ratio says far more about the weakness of Democratic leaders than it does about either Giuliani or Bloomberg (who changed his party affiliation midway through his time in office). Again, I am not excusing their conduct, and in particular around policies like “stop and frisk,” but ultimately, both were elected in a city where credible Democratic candidates had built-in electoral advantages they were unable to capitalize on.

It is almost impossible to have a debate about the issues Moss raises because his argument is at its core, emotional and subjective. No one wants an 82-year-old woman who has lived in her apartment in Little Italy for 50 years to be evicted because the building has been sold to a greedy redeveloper or the family-owned business that dates back three generations to be bounced because the owner triples the rent, but the utopian city that Moss envisions, one that has the Goldilocks-blend of just enough social services thriving small businesses and a creative art scene but is hospitable enough for the economic growth and tax base necessary to pay for it seems far-fetched. 

Moss’s nostalgia for the authentic New York he yearns for is also one step removed. He arrived in New York in the early 1990s, just as the first waves of gentrification were lapping at the shores of Times Square but (in his view) had already crested in the artsy parts of SoHo and the Lower East Side. He did not live through the 70s and 80s, the “Bronx is Burning” years, the heyday of peep shops and porn theaters on 42nd Street, or the graffiti-riddled subway system that nearly brought the city to its knees, but he longs for that edgier time when trash piled up because of municipal strikes and tourists considered leaving the city without having been mugged a successful trip. I don’t get it. And ultimately that vision of the city, one that embraces chaos, and an anything-goes mentality is easy to conjure in your mind as idyllic if you did not live through it but is also impossible to argue against because nostalgia tends to sand away the ugly parts of the past, leaving behind a more favorable memory than lived experience. 

And while Moss chronicles seemingly every instance of rapacious real estate development and suffering by the small businesses they evict, he has nothing to say about the truly poor and needy neighborhoods, the gang-infested city blocks where much of what little violence that still occurs in New York happens and what can (or should) be done about it. Nor does he credit the work of city leaders or (gasp) the New York City Police Department in making the city a more welcoming, safer place. Moss wants none of it. In his telling, areas like Coney Island were doing just fine, thank you very much, before the churn of redevelopment swooped in and remade them. 

In this critique is also an implicit acceptance of a certain level of societal dysfunction, of middling services, decaying infrastructure, and dilapidated buildings in favor of retaining a frisson of authenticity which, like the nostalgic past, is a subjective view of urban living that cannot be argued against because of its emotional appeal - you may not find the eccentric who cannot be evicted because his apartment is rent-controlled or mice in your building annoying, but Moss does not, both are totally defensible and you will never convince one that the other is correct. 

And Moss has nothing to say about larger economic questions. Bodegas will never be able to compete with big box retailers in selling goods because they lack the purchasing power to demand lower prices from manufacturers. But what about consumers? Is it a net good if someone can buy a tube of toothpaste or a can of soup at Target for less money than the corner store? Is Uber evil or has it given people living in the outer boroughs where taxi drivers would rarely venture a transportation option previously unavailable? And what of the taxi medallions that used to sell for more than one million dollars but are now essentially worthless? Is it good or bad that Uber and Lyft have reconfigured that market? I don’t know, I’m not an economist, but it seems to me there is a middle ground here that Moss refuses to consider. In painting in such stark terms, Moss also becomes an unreliable narrator. His tendency toward the binary, to the point where he suggests a walk of just one block can straddle the line between the “real” New York (eyes up, pedestrian tango, fill-in-the-blank desirable food aroma) and the “hyper-gentrified” New York (sanitized, glued to your iPhone, and hogging the sidewalk) undermines what are reasonable critiques of gentrification. 

For all Moss’s sturm und drang he does not get around to offering up any of his own solutions until the very end of the book and even then, his ideas are not fleshed out in a way that they can be critiqued meaningfully. Moreover, citing San Francisco, as Moss does for several of his 12 proposals, as a template for staunching gentrification seems curious as that city is probably one of the few that exceeds even New York’s rapid growth. Other suggestions, like an “insider benefits” program so New Yorkers can skip lines at museums reek of just the type of entitlement Moss spent the previous 400 pages railing against. Others, like restricting rent hikes and imposing vacancy taxes seem more reasonable, but at the end of the day, would any of it really matter? Moss’s thesis is that New York’s soul has been hollowed out and sold to the highest bidder, with Manhattan, most of Brooklyn, and increasing swaths of Queens and the Bronx felled by hyper-gentrification. Has the horse not already left the barn or is Staten Island our only hope? (just kidding, like a true New Yorker, Moss does not even acknowledge Staten Island.) 

Put me in the “if there is one thing that you can count on is change” camp that Moss hands a scant few pages of rebuttal at the end of his book. The boom and bust of the stock and real estate markets that provide much of the financial life blood of the city practically guarantee it. I do hope Moss gets some measure of return to the city he romanticizes and not just his cri de coeur of what it has become.

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Sunday, October 15, 2017

I Am Tired Of Waiting For Next Year

On the evening of October 12, 2012, I went to bed early, knowing my hometown team, the Washington Nationals, had the decisive fifth game of their playoff series against the St. Louis Cardinals well in hand. Entering the fifth inning, the Nats led 6-1, having come back from a two games to one deficit and with 21-game winner Gio Gonzalez on the mound. So, I hit record on my DVR and hit the hay, eager to watch the rest of the game the following morning. Little did I know that night would begin a run of frustration, disappointment, and heartbreak that continued five years to the day later when the Nats lost another Game 5 at home, this time to the Chicago Cubs. 

On one level, you have to hand it to the Nats. They have set an impossibly high bar for futility in such a short period of time. They have lost games (and series) because of fluke plays (non-call after Wieters got popped in the head by Baez?), one-hit wonders (CURSE YOU PETE KOZMA), epic performances (Clayton Kershaw in relief anyone?), questionable managerial decisions (looking at you Matt Williams for pulling Zimmermann in Game 1 of the 2014 NLDS), and of course, the epic meltdown I watched on tape-delay. 

After this most recent collapse, the natural question was whether the Nats are chokers. Some have said these losses are not choke jobs, that  instead, the Nats have simply been victim of an odd combination of bad luck, bad breaks, and bad calls. I don’t buy it. On paper, that is, by record, the Nats were better than all four teams they have lost to over the past five years. In each series they had home field advantage. Each Nats playoff team has been led by a man who won a World Series as a player and manager (Davey Johnson), as a player and managed in the World Series as a manager (Dusty Baker) or a guy who played for three World Series teams, winning one (Matt Williams). While the 2012 team was not that experienced, it was anchored by Jayson Werth, who had been signed the year before to provide precisely the type of “veteran leadership” that was needed in that brutal loss but every other playoff flameout had a roster full of players with plenty of playoff experience. 

The irony is that there is not really a lot that can be done. On paper, they have few flaws. The one major problem this season, the bullpen, was addressed before the trade deadline, but other than Werth’s departure, which will immediately be filled by either Michael Taylor or Adam Eaton, who missed most of the year with a knee injury, and maybe upgrading at catcher, the team has few moves to make. Switching managers? What is the point? They have had well-credentialed managers who wear World Series rings and two of whom had won more than 1,500 games each as managers and it did not matter. Plus, what kind of message would it send to have a fourth manager helming the team in the last six years? 

And that is what makes the Nats’ situation so frustrating. They are so good, the losses are that much more painful to watch. But going forward, the pain could be more acute and the good times could end. The team missed the playoffs the year after their division wins in 2012 and 2014 and player health is one of the great variables in sports (just ask this year’s New York Mets). More importantly, Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy will be free agents after next season and Anthony Rendon the year after. The Lerners may try to avoid the drama and sign Harper to a mammoth contract, or lock down Murphy or Rendon, but one (or all) of them may leave, creating huge voids in a roster that is right now one of the deepest in baseball. 

Occam’s Razor says that instead of looking for a complex answer, the simple one is usually true. With the Nats, the simple one is, they choke when the lights are brightest. 

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